On this sunny Saturday afternoon, traffic slows on the Golden State freeway. Inside one box van, four passengers sitting on the floor hang on to cabinets, speakers, and a plastic basketball hoop as the truck lurches and whines with the traffic. It’s an unlikely commute: Within 30 minutes of Dodger Stadium, Beverly Hills, and Venice Beach, this group is headed for an area of East Los Angeles where California dreaming becomes a nightmare.

This is Metro ICE (Inner City Evangelism), and instead of meeting at church, these four “Sidewalk Sunday School” workers are taking class to Aliso Village, one of the most violent of the Los Angeles housing projects. No singers or evangelistic crusades headline here. But today, like many other days over the past four years, in many other housing projects, the banana-yellow truck rolls past rows of deceptively calm, two-story pink tenements in Aliso Village and slows to a stop in front of a school wall that reads, “F—Up! Astek!”

Jeff Diltz, a ten-year veteran of urban youth work known as “Pastor Jeff,” emerges from the truck in high-tops, a red “God’s Gym” T-shirt, gray baggies, and sunglasses. Looking past the outline of the projects to L.A.’s skyscrapers, he grabs a handful of flyers announcing the group’s presence and takes off toward one side of the project.

Audry Eckhart, a willowy, middle-aged seminary student who leads Aliso’s visitation, pauses in the street to hug the kids who have surrounded her. “The majority of kids who come to Sidewalk Sunday School come because of relationship. Our ‘hanging out’ with them solidifies this,” she says, pointing to the Sunday-school truck. “We’ve even gone to some of their parties.”

“When are we having Sunday school?” the kids keep asking. Eckhart asks how they are doing, hands them papers that say “Something Big Is Coming,” and points toward the truck.

Passing through litter-lined courtyards where laundry swings in the wind, Eckhart knocks on door after door, leaning inside to speak with smiling moms who recognize her. Like a benevolent pied piper, she soon has ten kids in tow as she crosses to the next gang’s turf. Walls sprayed “Al Capone” bring to mind local headlines of the gang rivalry that erupts here after dark.

Eckhart marches up dirt-stained stairs, door-knocking again, and approaches six teenagers wearing T-shirts, hairnets, and oversized, belted pants, hovering in the opposite stairwell. “Would any of you like to go to Sunday school?” she probes. Cool expressions slide into snickers as the “homeboys” exchange glances. The biggest, a five-foot, nine-inch gang member with tattoos covering one arm, says he’ll go if they let him do the money jump—a game allowing the chosen kid to keep as many one-dollar bills taped end-to-end as he can jump over. The others nod in agreement as Eckhart shakes her head, grinning, and squeezes past the cluster.

Back on the street, she tells a nervous volunteer that she feels safe in the neighborhood because of the time she has spent with the families. “But one night, I was here after dark alone, and 30 or 40 of them were lined up on both sides of the street. Then they felt like a gang.”

Wandering back, the group sees one side of the converted moving truck drop to the curb, like a lid opening on a shoebox. Diltz is setting up props. The right wall of the truck—now a stage—hovers three feet above patchy grass. Speakers on each corner of the stage’s edge pump kid’s praise music into the air, alerting any dawdlers that Sunday school is about to start.

Kids pour onto two 30-foot-square blue-plastic tarps as Pastor Jeff’s enthusiastic “All right! Everybody ready for Sunday school?” cuts into a Christianized remake of the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The introduction is interrupted by a three-foot bandito named Juan leaping through the congregation, firing his pink cap gun at startled victims. Later, a smirking Diltz explains that this same child instigated tomato-pelting when they first came to Aliso Village. “This was our toughest project,” he reminisces. “The first few times we came the kids were saying we’d poisoned the candy.”

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Lessons From “Carlton The Can”

As Diltz looks into the kids’ faces, an observer may wonder what he sees that makes him come back week after week. One clue may be that as a child, he grew up poor in Chicago. Or it could be because Diltz’s introduction to Christ began with a bus—and an Assemblies of God youth pastor named Bill Wilson who picked him up each week for church and took him in at 16, when he was kicked out by his father. Or maybe the dream began ten years ago, when Diltz and his wife moved with their two toddlers to Brooklyn to help Wilson launch an inner-city bus ministry called Metro New York.

Smiling project kids dominate the cover of Diltz’s latest newsletter. Their innocence and need remind him of his mission. “When I look into the faces of these kids,” he says, “I see myself, hearing about Jesus for the first time. I want to reach them before they take that first drink, or that first hit of coke. The churches have all left the inner city—who’s going to reach them?”

Diltz calms the chatter and initiates Aliso’s kids into the law of the whistle (“By the count of three, you gotta be sitting up straight, hands in your lap, eyes looking at me”). It’s the beginning of the “semester,” and re-establishing order is taking more time than usual. Diltz glances at his watch, wondering if he can make it to the other project today before the sun goes down.

To start, Diltz poses a question. “What’s the first thing we always do, boys and girls?” A low mumble follows. His lineman’s frame is half bent-over as he points the mike at the kids, like a lead singer seeking audience participation. Clearer now, from the sea of bobbing faces comes a yell, “Pray!” After a brief prayer and three rounds of a children’s song (“3–2–1—Jesus is the one!”), the program moves to a new level of intensity.

The tarp resonates with shouts of “Chickens! Chickens!” and “Turkeys! Turkeys!” It is not a school-yard scuffle, but a children’s game. The girls, dubbed “chickens,” cheer their delegate in a timed race to put all the shapes in the Tupperware ball first. Half stand-up comic, half coach, Diltz’s teasing voice editorializes for the unfortunate loser, “I hate when that happens,” earning a ripple of laughter from sympathizers. Next, Diltz leads the boys in chanting “Turkeys!” to a rap version of “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” as nine-year-old Eddie does the hula-hoop contest with Evelyn. The scene bears all the ambiance of Monday night football in a crowded living room.

Today, prizes include pairs of new Nike and Ninja Turtle tennis shoes. Round after round, kids pass over giant candy bars to pick the shoes, though no one has yet found his or her exact size on stage.

Diltz brings out colored posters and quiets the crowd. “This is the most important time, boys and girls,” he says gravely, eyeballing some of his more restless listeners. It’s a firm but kind voice that leads into a lively story of “Carlton the Can” (on the danger of putting people on a pinnacle). His audience is soon sitting ramrod straight, eyes glued on the brightly colored posters. After a ten-minute sermonette, two-thirds of the kids raise their hands in response to this invitation for Jesus to help them: “Dear Jesus,” the Hispanic murmur echoes Diltz, “I love you today. Thank you for dying on the cross. Thank you for coming into my life. Help me, Jesus, to keep my eyes on you.”

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The Truck Moves On

Ten minutes later, the truck lurches past a wall bearing a six-foot memorial mural marking the day and place another gang member has died. Two blocks later, it enters Ramona Gardens, where slate-blue bungalows bellow with the competing sounds of top-40 music, Mexican melodies, and children’s voices.

As Diltz parks the truck at a clearing of grass, kids surround the cab. Around the corner, 30 to 40 middle-aged gang members, sporting greased braids, hefty swaggers, and Budweisers, represent the community’s role models, making Diltz’s Sunday-school lesson on Carlton the Can hardly theoretical.

Streaks of pink and yellow peek over the Ramona Gardens rooftops as Diltz dismisses the kids with a “Last one home’s a rotten potato!”

Will these kids make wiser choices because of Metro ICE? Who knows—in ten years, some of the kids on today’s tarp may follow Diltz’s footsteps in the city of angels. But tonight, as shadows of children running home dance in the street, all that matters to them is knowing the familiar yellow truck lumbering out of the slums will be back.

By Nancy Kington, a free-lance writer from Bellflower, California.

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